Equity & Diversity

Immigration Raids’ Impact on Children Focus of Congressional Hearing

By Mary Ann Zehr — May 20, 2008 4 min read

Congress should enact legislation giving more teeth to existing federal guidelines aimed at ensuring that children’s needs are considered when their parents are arrested in raids by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, a California congresswoman said today.

The agency’s November 2007 guidelines outlining humanitarian concerns to be addressed during raids “are not being followed in a consistent fashion,” said Rep. Lynn C. Woolsey, a Democrat from California and the chairwoman of the workforce protections subcommittee of the House Education and Labor Committee, who presided over a hearing this morning about how raids by the agency known as ICE affect children.

Among other measures, the agency’s guidelines call for detainees to be given access to telephones so they can contact family members and for the release of nursing mothers or their placement in one of the nation’s two family detention centers. The guidelines also stipulate that immigration agents shouldn’t take into custody a child who is a legal permanent resident or U.S. citizen.

“These guidelines are discretionary, and so ICE officials most likely have no real incentive to follow them,” said Ms. Woolsey. “As a result, we are still hearing heartbreaking stories of the impact on children.”

An immigration raid on a meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa, on May 12 resulted in what local education officials said was significant disruption to the 600-student school system, with many children left at school while their parents were in custody. Most of the school system’s 140 Latino children were absent the day after the raid, though all but nine pupils had returned as of today, a school official said. (“Iowa Immigration Raid Called a ‘Man-Made Disaster’,” May 21, 2008.)

But James C. Spero, the acting deputy assistant director for the office of investigations of ICE, testified that “ICE strikes a balance between the operational objective of enforcing the law and any humanitarian issues that may arise as a result of the enforcement operation.”

During the Iowa raid, in which 389 immigrants were detained, 62 were released for humanitarian purposes, Mr. Spero said. He noted that “extraordinary care was taken to determine if any arrestees were sole caregivers or had other humanitarian concerns.”

Schools Left Scrambling

The other three panelists who testified at the hearing, held on Capitol Hill, painted a picture of how schools and preschools scramble to care for children in the aftermath of an immigration raid.

“The immigration raids are creating enormous strain on school systems, child-care centers, and other institutions,” said Janet Murguia, the president and chief executive officer of the Washington-based National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy group.

She contended that some ICE guidelines weren’t followed during the recent raid in Iowa. Very few detainees were given access to telephones, and two nursing mothers were detained for 24 hours, she claimed. “We saw the church and school provide a safety net,” she said.

Ms. Murguia submitted for the congressional record a copy of a report, “Paying the Price: The Impact of Immigration Raids on America’s Children,” written last year by the Urban Institute and commissioned by her organization.

State and local officials voiced similar concerns.

“The [New Mexico] Department is not informed of enforcement operations before they happen, and so is not able to respond to children and assess [conditions] for their safety in a timely manner,” said Simon Romo, the chief counsel of the New Mexico Child, Youth, and Families Department. “Instead, relatives, neighbors, friends, and community agencies have been absorbing the responsibility of caring for children left without parents.”

Katherine Gibney, the principal of the 400-student San Pedro Elementary School, in San Rafael, Calif., described how she and her school’s staff had their work disrupted by an immigration raid in the school’s community in March 2007. For three days following the sweep by federal immigration officials, she said, teachers rode buses until 6 p.m. to ensure that children were delivered safely to homes, time that could have been spent preparing lessons.

“After-school programs became a huge counseling session, rather than instructional time,” she said.

Ms. Gibney said her school is still recovering from the immigration enforcement actions more than a year after they happened. “Absentee rates have soared. Test scores have dropped. Students who do make it to school remain distracted as they worry about whether their families will be at home when they return,” she said.

Rep. Ruben Hinojosa, a Democrat from Texas, who is not a member of the subcommittee, was allowed to sit in and expressed concerns about what he said have been reports of ICE agents carrying out enforcement activities near Head Start centers and schools. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus sent a letter on April 29 to Julie L. Myers, the ICE assistant secretary, asking for a halt to such activities, he said. Addressing Mr. Spero, he said, “Please share with me how and when ICE plans to respond to our letter.”

Mr. Spero declined to provide an answer immediately, saying he wanted to respond to the congressman in writing.

Some members of Congress attending the hearing stressed the need for the federal government to continue to enforce the nation’s immigration laws, even though children may be affected.

“A person who enters the country illegally, or overstays their visa—they are the person putting those children in jeopardy,” said Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, a Republican from California and the ranking member of the House Education and Labor Committee. He said his constituents don’t want the government to ignore the fact that undocumented immigrants are breaking the law.

Rep. Joe Wilson, a Republican from South Carolina, put in a plug for members of Congress to support a bill calling for the creation of a system to verify that workers are citizens or in the country legally.

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